Hellene: A Complex Word and Contemporary Pagan Use

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The word “Hellene” can invoke various thoughts. From the concept of Ancient Greece’s shared identity, to Pagans that remained to the Gods, to Emperor Julian’s vision of Hellenic religion, and to the identity of the modern Greek nation. This article seeks to explore the history of this word, and give thoughts over how the term suitably denotes as an identity for contemporary practitioners of Hellenism.

 

Hellene as a Cultural Identity

There were many terms used to refer to the Greeks. Among them were Achaeans, Danaans, and Argives, which were all used to denote a common Greek identity, but also prominent was Hellene. The word Hellene means “bright,” and may relate to the God, King Helios.

In Hellenic mythology, Deucalion and Pyrrha, survivors of the deluge who became the first King and Queen of northern Greece, bore a son named Hellen, eponymous king of the Hellenes who would come to be the progenitor of the Greek peoples, who himself bore various children that would split off into the different Greek tribes around Phthia. (Hesiod, Catalogue of Women, frr. 9 and 10(a)) Thucydides writes that “before the Trojan war there is no indication of any common action in Hellas, nor indeed of the universal prevalence of the name; on the contrary, before the time of Hellen, son of Deucalion, no such appellation existed, but the country went by the names of the different tribes, in particular of the Pelasgian. It was not till Hellen and his sons grew strong in Phthiotis, and were invited as allies into the other cities, that one by one they gradually acquired from the connection the name of Hellenes; though a long time elapsed before that name could fasten itself upon all. The best proof of this is furnished by Homer. Born long after the Trojan War, he nowhere calls all of them by that name, nor indeed any of them except the followers of Achilles from Phthiotis, who were the original Hellenes: in his poems they are called Danaans, Argives, and Achaeans.” (Thucydides & Richard Crawley, History of the Peloponnesian War, 1.1.3)

The spread of Hellenic culture went beyond Greece. It spread with Greek colonies across the Mediterranean in lands such as Italy and North Africa, and following the death of Alexander the Great and dawn of the Hellenistic period, Greek culture would spread like wildfire across much of the Near East, where Hellenistic and Hellenized culture interacted and mingled with local cultures throughout the regions and produced new, diverse traditions.

 

Hellene as a Pagan Religious Identity

Through Paul the term Hellene came to mean “non-Hebrew” in the New Testament, (Paul, Acts of the Apostles, 13:48, 15:3 and 7:12, Galatians 3:28) and was thus subsequently spurned and abandoned by Greek Christians, who preferred to differentiate people according to religion than culture. The word Hellene thus developed to assume a religious significance around the 2nd-3rd centuries ACE. The Christian apologist Aristeides picked out the Hellenes as one of the representative Pagan peoples of the world alongside Egyptians, (Aristeides, Apology) and later writer Clement of Alexandria wrote that all Pagans were identified as Hellenes. (Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies, 6, 5, 41) By the 4th century ACE, Greek Christians took to identifying themselves as “Romaioi” (i.e., Roman, Byzantine) instead, (Howatson 1989, 264) rejecting the cultural force of Hellenism and classifying Hellenes as a distinct people with a separate identity. (Malatras 2011, 425-427)

This definition was taken and held by some Graeco-Roman Pagans who continued to uphold the religious and cultural identity of ancient Greece, the most prominent of which was Emperor Julian (r. 361-363 ACE) who eagerly claimed the term. Julian defined the term more articulately, giving the name of Hellenism to his traditional Graeco-Roman religion and coining the term Hellene as a practitioner of Hellenism. (Flavius Iulianus & Wilmer C. Wright Vol I. 1962, 71) (Flavius Iulianus & Wilmer C. Wright Vol I. 1962, 319) (Flavius Iulianus & Wilmer C. Wright Vol III. 1962, 419) This notion was generally accepted, and Hellene became synonymous with practitioners of traditional Graeco-Roman cultus well into the Christian era. Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565) in his Corpus Juris Civilis would later introduce two new statutes that decreed the destruction of Hellenism, even within private life. Procopius writes of this, stating that “he [Justinian] turned the persecution against the ‘Greeks’, [Hellenes] torturing their bodies and looting their property. Many of these decided to assume for appearance’ sake the name of Christian in order to avert the immediate threat; but it was not long before they were for the most part caught at their libations and sacrifices.” (Procopius 1935, 137-141) Late Byzantine History of Emperors describes the devout Pagan, Emperor Dicoletian, as “Roman Emperor, Hellene and idolater.” (Iadevaia 2005, 9) This identity of Hellene meaning Graeco-Roman polytheist continued into the reign of the much later Constantine VII (r. 913-959 ACE), who in his De Administrando Imperio makes explicit reference to the last public Hellenes, the Maniots (Greenhalgh & Eliopoulos 1985, 22), in such a manner:

“Be it known that the inhabitants of Castle Maina are not from the race of aforesaid Slavs (Melingoi and Ezeritai dwelling on the Taygetus) but from the older Romaioi, who up to the present time are termed Hellenes by the local inhabitants on account of their being in olden times idolaters and worshippers of idols like the ancient Greeks, and who were baptized and became Christians in the reign of the glorious Basil. The place in which they live is waterless and inaccessible, but has olives from which they gain some consolation.”

 

Christianization of Hellene & Modern Greece

The Christianization of the Hellenic identity is thought to have had hints in the 11th century among minor educated circles in the Byzantine Empire. However, it became more prevalent following the Fall of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, though still minor. Small circles of the elite used the term “Hellene” as a self-identifying term in the Empire of Nicaea. (Page 2008, 127) (Kaplanis 2014, 91-92) However, once the Byzantines retook Constantinople in 1261 ACE, Romaioi returned to being the standard self-description for Greeks (Kaplanis 2014, 92) and Hellene resumed meaning Pagan. In the 15th century, the philosopher Gemistos Plethon took on the term Hellene, and wished to bring back Hellenism as the state religion of the Byzantine Empire, (Kalpanis 2014, 92) and later when the Ottomans introduced the millet system, they would use the term Rumlar, derived from Romaioi, rather than Hellene, and apply it to all members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, regardless of their ethnic origin or spoken language. (Mazower 2002, 105–107)

The term Hellene was finally seized by the Greek Christian nationalist movement in the 19th century, where the term was “Christianized” and used to refer to the people inhabiting the Greek Orthodox state. However, many Greek Christian populations, especially those outside the recently formed Greek nation, continued to call themselves Romaioi into the 20th century. Peter Charanis, who was born on Lemnos in 1908 and would later become a professor at Rutgers University on Byzantine history, recounts that when the island was seized from the Ottomans by the Greek state in 1912, Greek soldiers were assigned to each village and stationed themselves in their public squares. Some of the island children ran to find how Greek soldiers looked. “What are you looking at?’” asked one of the soldiers. ‘‘At Hellenes,’’ the children retorted. ‘‘Are you not Hellenes yourselves?’’ the soldiers inquired. ‘‘No, we are Romans,’’ the children answered. (Kaldellis 2007, 42–43)

 

Hellene and Hellenism Today

In more recent times, with the resurrection of Hellenism as a religion in contemporary times, the term Hellene has often been reclaimed as a religious self-identity by practitioners of Hellenism. This sometimes leads to Greek Christians becoming outraged, often claiming that this usage of the term is offensive or insensitive because it can cause confusion and conflation with the contemporary Christian Greek culture. However, the usage of Hellene as identifying term for Graeco-Roman polytheists has far predated that of the contemporary nation by almost two thousand years. For non-Greeks, the usage of the term Hellene merely applies as a religious self-identity of a practitioner rather than a claim of descendance, in much of the same way that the term Christian shouldn’t be inferred to mean a literal descendant of Christ. For Greeks who follow Hellenism, however, it means so much more, tying deeply into what it means to fundamentally be Greek.

To object to this usage by pushing a narrative that times change is itself insensitive to followers of Hellenism. Not only did the term Hellene and Hellenism predate the modern Christian Greek state, but the traditionally Christian Greek culture, which champions itself as heirs to the Byzantines and Orthodox Christianity more than anything from Antiquity asides from lipservice, was, and is, actively hostile to ancient Greek culture, its religion of Hellenism, and its contemporary practitioners who identify with a Greece before Christianity. After all, the modern Greek state recognizes the Eastern Orthodox Church as its state religion and has denied Hellenism a right to be recognized as a known religion for much of history up until last year, and even then without recognition as a religious statutory body. Christians have taken a term which Hellenic polytheists have identified with for over two millennia and assigned it for themselves, and while it is great that the Greek people move back towards their ancient identity, it shouldn’t come at the cost of denying practitioners of that ancient identity’s traditional religion.

 

Bibliography

“DEUCALION (Deukalion) – Hero of the Great Deluge of Greek Mythology.” Theoi Project. Accessed February 17, 2018. http://www.theoi.com/Heros/Deukalion.html.

Greenhalgh, P. A. L.; Eliopoulos, Edward (1985). Deep into Mani: Journey to the Southern Tip of Greece. Faber and Faber. ISBN 0-571-13524-2.

Howatson, M.C. (1989). The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kaldellis, Anthony. Hellenism in Byzantium: The Transformations of Greek Identity and the Reception of the Classical Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Kaplanis, Tassos (2014). “Antique Names and Self-Identification: Hellenes, Graikoi, and Romaioi from Late Byzantium to the Greek Nation-State”. In Tziovas, Dimitris. Re-imagining the Past: Antiquity and Modern Greek Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 81–97.

Malatras, Christos (2011). “The Making of an Ethnic Group: The Romaioi in 12th–13th Century”. In K. A. Dimadis. https://www.academia.edu/1999944/The_making_of_an_ethnic_group_the_Romaioi_in_12th-13th_century

Page, Gill (2008). Being Byzantine: Greek Identity Before the Ottomans, 1200–1420. Cambridge University Press.

Procopius. The Anecdota or Secret History. Translated by H. B. Dewing. Loeb Classical Library 290. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935

Thucydides. The history of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Richard Crawley. Overland Park (Kan.): Digireads.com Publishing, 2009.

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The Disenfranchising of Polytheism in the Secular West

Ancient Greek god, Zeus olympian

Polytheists face discrimination in western societies because of the West’s fundamental disagreement with what is considered an “acceptable” religion. An essential component of this discrimination is, paradoxically, Western secularism. Though ostensibly Western secularism pretends to treat all religions equally, it in truth has been significantly shaped by a background of a monotheistic cultural background and infused with it, which profoundly influences what the West will consider an “acceptable” religion. Because of this, it inherently grants favor towards the monotheist theological paradigm by forcing “unsavory” or culturally distinct practices out of the public. This essentially makes secularism a tool by monotheists to deny an understanding of actual religious plurality, and with that, force religions deemed “deviant” (e.g., polytheistic religions) which tenant in Western society to fundamentally change to better suit the public eye.

 

Polytheism as “Abhorrent” in Secular Space

Though the very term polytheism goes as far back as Aeschylus (Suppliant Women 424f), it is likewise regularly defined externally and instilled with the monotheist overculture, as seen with the cases of Philo of Alexandria. And much later, it arrived in the early modern West as a slur, mostly by predominantly Protestant countries, where it can be contended that the disgust of the supposed deviancy of polytheism is immensely increased so much so that the term is used as a weapon, seen in the term’s entrance into modern English, where it was used as an anti-papist slur against Jesuits operating in Asia in the 17th century. (Page duBois 2014, 19)

One of the most notorious methods of disenfranchising polytheism is enforced is through the use of secular space. This is discussed by Judith Butler in her book The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, which highlights how the public space of religious discourse is embedded by an Abrahamic foundation, and is inherently used to reinforce a monotheistic religious paradigm (most particularly of Christianity). There exists an unfair advantage given to monotheists in all aspects of western society, much of which is protected because of secularism; for example in 1833 a judicial precedent was established in the United States by Joseph Story which privileged and encouraged Christianity (Joseph Story, 693-703), while in 1892 the Supreme Court made a decision which created a rhetoric still espoused today which identified the United States as a “Christian Nation” (143 U.S. 457).

Saba Mahmood suggests in her work Is Critique Secular? that despite what many come to believe about secularism (being the separation of a religious body and the state), history often shows that secularism acts as a force for regulation and reformation of religious beliefs in light of what the overculture considers what a “proper religion” is. This is accomplished by the establishment of what is considered “religious” by the society, which is normalized and carefully maintained with an eye for internal consistency. In truth, Western secularism isn’t genuinely pluralistic. Western secularism arose out of Protestantism, and regardless of its allusions to the contrary, it still privileges a single religious mode of thought by driving practices deemed unsavory or culturally distinct out of the public eye. Everything that is regarded as foreign to the overculture of the perceived “norm” is deemed deviant and inappropriate, as they are not viewed as being consistent with the overculture’s concept of what is considered properly “religion,” and thus pushed into the private sphere, because it is not adequate for public consumption. This, in essence, bars any possible understanding outside of what is deemed “the norm,” which results in the public sphere having a fundamental lack of pluralistic understanding of religion that brings into account the differences and variations in religious concerns and cultural expressions. It masks religious tolerance — more aptly mere tolerance — only if it exits the public eye, and prevents the chance of actual religious plurality from taking root. Instead, religion is ostracized, regulated, and ultimately, reshaped and remade through the practice of law.

Yes, most countries in the West, especially in the Americas, follow a concept of the separation of Church and State. However, it’s essential to keep in mind that this achievement, and by extension the “public sphere” concerning religious discourse, is overwhelmingly a monotheist achievement. It isn’t merely that the majority of the populace maintains a religious affiliation with a monotheistic religion, but rather the very legal foundation of this culture is established on Abrahamic Monotheistic dominance. This fundamentally means the public will presuppose what is properly “religious,” and blatantly reaffirm the theological paradigm that is dominant in the overculture while ostensibly putting forward a notion of tolerance.

Because of this, a boundary is created between the “secular” and “religious” space that is artificial and inherently untenable for polytheists, and even more broadly theists who merely hold an immanent view of the divine (a view not only common among polytheists, but also frequent among non-Protestant sects of Christianity). The divine— and to that extent, the practice of the religion— penetrates aspects of daily, even mundane life, which inevitably includes public life. Religion isn’t merely confined to the temples— it can be part of a lifestyle, and the separation currently existent in western secularism isn’t simply unnatural; it is ultimately disenfranchising.

This marginalization produces an end result that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for cohabitation while maintaining religious integrity and practice. It leaves ultimately two options to a religious tradition which lies outside the norm of the overculture. To either continue to be marginalized in the grand scale of society, or alternatively, to conform to the overculture and model itself after the ideal “minority religion,” and with that willingly submit itself to a systemic disenchantment of religious identity and spirituality, which doesn’t recognize nor embrace their theological paradigm. And this is precisely what many polytheistic traditions submit themselves to in the west.

India is a shining star that should be looked up to— a place which holds a heritage of multifaceted religious diversity and has never held a dogma of an exclusive truth. Indian society defines the concept of secularism as religious pluralism, which aims to accept and integrate diversity both in private and public life. It’s not the separation of a religious body and state, but rather the acknowledgment of the state’s multireligious nature. (Page duBois 2014, 8) In stark contrast, western nations follow a skewed form of secular doctrine which only ends up effectively engaging in state-sponsored religious oppression in which their definition of what is “religion” inherently privileges monotheistic Abrahamic religions. The failing of contemporary western society to tolerate – let alone embrace – any notions of pluralistic polytheism are abundantly clear.

 

Notions of what is “properly religious”

During the early 20th-century, C.S. Lewis released his autobiography Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life and coined the term “chronological snobbery.” This is a fallacy that indicates that the intellectual and cultural capacities of an earlier time can be positioned as inherently inferior to that of the present, merely by a view of the current time being actively experienced and the past, in contrast, as outdated. This is precisely what the hegemonic coercion of Abrahamic monotheism does in the west to shape the public perception of what is “acceptable,” and is even dominant in Lewis’ own work with his concept of “ethical monotheism.”

This fallacious notion of linear development in religion has always existed. The term Pagan itself was initially something that was synonymous with “rustic” or “rural.” The term was later adopted by Christians, who primarily established centers in urban areas, as a derogatory term against polytheists who lived in the more “rural areas” of society, and thus kept their traditions. This term was consequently weaponized and used to refer to polytheists as an equivalent to rednecks, with a strong implication of being backward or primitive. (Michael York 2003, 6)

Western notions of what is properly “religious,” and with that the notion of “polytheism” being synonymous with “primitivism”, were engraved into the West with the dominance of Abrahamic monotheism. The word polytheism would be used in Christian schisms as a slur invoked against opponents. (Page duBois 2014, 31) Western convictions would carry into Western colonial expansion, most particularly damaging in regions like India during the British Raj, where the British came to be appalled by the immeasurable diversity in the continent and thus imposed a uniformity through an Anglicized Indian elite that would shape much of what became modern Hinduism. (Wendy Doniger 2010, 7-9) Also in the British Raj during the 19th-century a number of missionaries, most notably the infamous John Wilson, harassed Zoroastrians and implied that they were primitive by referring to them as polytheists. (Jenny Rose 2012, 205)

Western (particularly Protestant) notions of what’s “religious” was the metric scale of which other cultures were judged from, and this would have grand influence when it came to foreign policy. When the Americans used the threat of armed force against Japan to open the country 1853 ACE, it imposed a list of treaties and demands, among which was a freedom of religion that forced the country to contest with western ideas of religion. This signifcantly altered the idea of religion in Japan. Japan never even had a word for “religion” in the notion much of the Protestant West understood it; religion was simply part of life. Once considered an extension of Buddhism, religion in Japan was profoundly shaped by western ideas, which led to the rise of Shintoism as an independent faith. (Jason Ananda Josephson 2012, 98)

The notion of polytheism being a sort of spiritual archaism persisted into the era of early psychology, where certain psychologists who were inspired by Boyer, Hegel, Wellhausen, et al., tried to put forward a notion of linear human development in the progression of religion, which would culminate into an ultimate “end result.” Here, they position animism and polytheism as archaic religious “primitivism,” which would naturally and ultimately yield to more “developed” expressions of religion, until something akin to C.S. Lewis’ “ethical monotheism” is achieved. This attempt at “naturalizing” monotheism is oftentimes even furthered by post-monotheistic Atheistic writers who, having only been exposed to the monotheistic theological paradigm due to a lack of any actual religious plurality in Western secular space, will claim that the ultimate goal of a fully mature society is post-monotheistic secularism. (Page duBois 2014, 12)

These long-held views of what is properly “religious” have been so engraved into western society that it results in the west consistently disenfranchising polytheists at an alarming frequency. When these views are coupled with the deeply ingrained colonialist attitudes of the West, it penetrates the public reception to polytheistic theology, even in the contemporary “tolerant” West, and causes polytheism to be perceived as inferior, archaic and ignorant. The apparent claims of tolerance and modernity expose themselves to be fictitious, and this can have a strongly negative influence on polytheistic communities, leading them to hold onto a sort of baggage which causes them engage in reductionist efforts to make the belief in many Gods as close to monotheism as possible to be more comfortable to westerners. This normalizes conformity to the monotheistic overculture in the West.

Those who live within or are profoundly influenced by the monotheistic overculture in the west will start with baggage by default, simply by being a part of that culture, regardless of your personal or familial beliefs. Because of this, connecting to a religion that doesn’t adhere to the monotheistic overculture’s paradigm can be a bit like learning a second language, but sometimes accidentally replacing words with words from the language you were raised with, or making your sentences function like the language you were raised with, even though your second language doesn’t function like that. This is the essence of baggage, and it can drastically effect polytheistic communities who come under influence of the monotheistic overculture, resulting in conformity to the Western perception of what is properly “religious.”

 

Effect on Polytheistic Diaspora

Even some of the worlds oldest polytheistic religions find themselves changing drastically when influenced by the monotheistic overculture, and will often hold onto baggage which distances them from traditional practices and beliefs. Two of the most notable examples are Hinduism and Zoroastrianism.

 

Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest continuously living polytheistic religions. As already stated, however, much of modern day Hinduism came to be directed by an Anglicized Indian class during the British Raj. (Wendy Doniger 2010, 7-9) This influence is exemplified in Hindu diaspora in the west, however, where it is often forced to struggle with and ultimately conform to the hegemony of monotheistic overculture in the West. Prema Kurien’s work Place at the Multicultural Table: The Development of an American Hinduism reveals the pressures on American Hindus to adapt their religion to the “model minority,” which can encompass both religion and ethnicity. These pressures culminate into the assimilation of Hindus into a Western culture, in both the colonial and immigrant contexts, through an artificial, organized Hinduism based in both text and history, which is profoundly evocative of the more accepted monotheism present in the colonial overculture (e.g., Arya Samaj)

Often Western Hindus will try to make their polytheistic values more digestible to Westerners, underplaying the individuality of the Gods and putting forth a claim that Hinduism is truly monotheistic, or that all people worship the same God.

 

An additional example is found in contemporary Zoroastrianism, another one of the world’s oldest continuously living polytheistic traditions, with a tradition of worshiping Ahura Mazda, the highest God, and the Yazatas, the Good Gods, under Him. This, however, has been long since mutilated— at least among the Parsi. Though the monotheizing of Zoroastrianism can be traced as beginning during the Islamic Invasion of Iran, it wasn’t until the British Raj did Zoroastrianism become forced to adapt. (Jenny Rose 2012, 23) At this time, seeing the wealthy Zoroastrian Parsi community, (Jenny Rose 2012, 23) Anglicans attempted to harass and convert the Zoroastrians and launched a smear campaign against the religion for being “polytheistic.” (Jenny Rose 2012, 205) In an effort to relieve themselves, Zoroastrians adopted a western reinterpretation of their religion by 18th-century German linguist, Martin Haug, who imposed sole monotheism. Following Zoroastrian conformity to the overculture, the Anglicans stopped bothering them so much once they adopted monotheism and went so far as to adopt angelic choir.

An ignorance towards the worship of good Gods, the Yazatas, which translates as “those worthy of worship,” is present in the public face of contemporary Zoroastrianism, and translations often write them off as “angels” in the monotheistic sense. Furthermore, many contemporary Zoroastrians want to claim this prize of “oldest monotheism” to simultaneously protect themselves from and also shame their Abrahamic neighbors, despite a history of worshiping many Gods as well as the prophet Zoroaster clearly referencing to and giving praise for other Gods in the Gathas. (Yasna 30:9)

 

Effect on Polytheists in Contemporary Paganism

Considering that some of the worlds largest and oldest polytheistic religions find themselves substantially altered to adapt to a western monotheistic overculture, there isn’t any doubt that contemporary Paganism also faces grave issues with baggage, especially since it’s homegrown. The disgust and dismissal of religious theology and experience is likewise a prevalent force that Contemporary Pagans in the west face every day. Since day one, Contemporary Paganism has understood the struggles of being a religious minority, with proof of its “legitimacy” being frequently demanded. Quite often an expectation of privatization exists for economic and safety reasons, especially in regions of the West where evangelical monotheisms hold hegemony.

Furthermore, Contemporary Paganism was born in a monotheistic, largely Protestant West. If we mark Gerald Gardner’s foundation of British Traditional Witchcraft as the beginning of modern Paganism, or look to the “early Paganisms” of the Romantic and Victorian eras, then it arose out of Protestant overculture. This can be coupled with the fact that not many of us were “born into” Paganism. Most of us began as some sort of Abrahamic religion– and even if we were born into a family that was outright atheist, we weren’t born in a vacuum– we were under constant influence of that monotheist mode of thought so ingrained into western culture, and likewise both externally and internally use it as a metric to measure all other things, whether that be ethics, morality, actions, or beliefs. Due to all of this, Contemporary Pagans can sometimes come with some type of baggage and hold the same prejudices and biases, and itself produce an environment hostile to Polytheists.

The topic is addressed wonderfully in TheLettuceMan’s post on this very topic, but overall this exact same fallacious gargle of linear human development is regurgitated by certain individuals who try to latch onto Paganism such as John Halstead and Mark Green, except holding a notion of a non-particular atheistic post-Christianity rather than C.S. Lewis’ conception of an ethical monotheism. The same notions of ethnocentric pomposity and chronological snobbery are assumed by these “authors,” who uphold a conviction that the modern period is superior to the past, and that looking back is nonsensical and applying anything from it is inappropriate. By large, these atheistic “humanistic Pagans,” who try to downplay the existence of the Gods as mere archetypes or thoughtforms, are the result of a Protestant overculture that preaches a mere toleration of polytheism within Contemporary Paganism. They espouse the exact same attitudes that are repeated over and over again by an overwhelming monotheistic Protestant West, and serve as nothing more but another example of Monotheistic overculture.

 

Conclusion

It’s important to recognize the problems of approaching secularism as a state-religious apparatus. Instead of secularism being a space of no Gods, which only enforces an overculture by forcing anything outside of the theological paradigm into the private sector, we should look to the example of multicultural India and transform secular space into a heterogenous area of many Gods, which truly functions as a way to manage and integrate with diversity and allow for true religious plurality, rather than enforce a hegemonic overculture. It’s imperative to recognize, address, and extricate ourselves from the baggage of the monotheistic overculture, and instead try to embrace a religious climate that we’re more comfortable with.

 

(Special thanks to my close friend TheLettuceMan for greatly inspiring me with this article!)

 

Bibliography

Asad, Talal, Judith Butler, Saba Mahmood, and Wendy Brown. Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013.

Butler, Judith, Jürgen Habemas, Charles Taylor, Cornel West, The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, ed. Eduardo Mendieta and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

Doniger, Wendy. “The Uses and Misuses of Polytheism and Monotheism in Hinduism.” The University of Chicago Divinity School. 2010. Accessed January 29, 2018. https://divinity.uchicago.edu/sites/default/files/imce/pdfs/webforum/012010/monotheism%20for%20religion%20and%20culture-titlecorr.pdf

duBois, Page, A Million and One Gods: The Persistence of Polytheism, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.

Hrafnblod, “On Earth Based Religions”, Grennunghund Hearth, April 5, 2017, Accessed May 27, 2017. https://grennunghund.blog/2017/04/05/on-earth-based-religions/

Hrafnblod, “Paganism Isn’t Dying, It’s (Finally) Maturing”, Grennunghund Hearth, May 21, 2017, Accessed May 27, 2017. https://grennunghund.blog/2017/05/21/paganism-isnt-dying-its-finally-maturing/

Josephson, Jason Ānanda. The Invention of Religion in Japan. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012.

“Justice Joseph Story on Church and State (1833).” Belcher Foundation. Accessed January 29, 2018. http://www.belcherfoundation.org/joseph_story_on_church_and_state.htm

Kurien, Prema, Place at the Multicultural Table: The Development of an American Hinduism, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007.

“polytheism, n.”. OED Online. January 2018. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.net.ucf.edu/view/Entry/147407?redirectedFrom=polytheism (accessed January 23, 2018).

Rose, Jenny. Zoroastrianism: An Introduction. London: I. B. Tauris, 2012.

TheLettuceMan. “The Marginalization of Polytheists in the Public Sphere of Paganism.” Of Axe and Plough. May 29, 2017. Accessed January 22, 2018. https://thelettuceman.wordpress.com/2017/05/28/the-marginalization-of-polytheists-in-the-public-sphere-of-paganism/

“Understanding Religious Pluralism in India.” Columbia Global Centers. June 03, 2016. Accessed January 29, 2018. https://globalcenters.columbia.edu/news/understanding-religious-pluralism-india

UsurpedLettuce, Reddit post “Spirituality in a Disenchanted World”, Dec 29, 2017 (1:49 p.m.), accessed January 22, 2018, https://www.reddit.com/r/pagan/comments/7mn7dw/spirituality_in_a_disenchanted_world/drwovty/

Vohra, Ashok. “Religious pluralism and Hinduism – Times of India.” The Times of India. May 16, 2011. Accessed January 29, 2018. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/Religious-pluralism-and-Hinduism/articleshow/8363604.cms

York, Michael, Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion, New York: New York University Press, 2003.

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Concerning the “Legitimacy” of Contemporary Paganism

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On a few occasions, I will see someone try to criticize contemporary Paganism by attacking its “legitimacy.” Some might criticize its practitioners for attempting to resurrect traditions that were systematically destroyed, while others may laugh and advance a form of misotheism against the Gods for being somehow “irrelevant.” These assertions are not only faulty, but are nothing more than a self-indulgent echo chamber of smug satisfaction.

Firstly, some might try to put forward a hostility towards the Gods who contemporary Pagans worship, and claim that the decline of a belief system indicates that the God(s) of said system are somehow irrelevant, if even real. This point is imprudent, because throughout history it wasn’t the Gods failing people, but rather it was people failing the Gods. After all, it was people who would run throughout Syria destroying sacred spaces (both in ancient times and today), people who destroyed grand temples to the Gods, and people who on several occasions declared it illegal to engage in the proper cultus of the Gods and participate in sacrifice to the divine in any form, even privately in one’s own home, on the risk of the death penalty.

Some may retort how I am “conveniently blaming people,” and yes, this is precisely what I am doing. People are to blame for this, as for so much else. This entire point becomes moot because it doesn’t say a single thing about the Gods, but it does say a whole lot about how far mankind can devolve into degeneracy and depravity. And it isn’t like this is unique to ancient paganism; the same issue is even prevalent in parts of the world today, not only among even contemporary pagans, but extending to other Abrahamics and peoples of related faiths. The logic is ultimately weak and counterintuitive; after all, hadn’t Islam, a different belief system from Christianity, not only overthrown the Galileans in a significant amount of regions across the globe, but also asserted their own systems of beliefs and practices in these areas centered around the worship of the same God? Using this very same logic, would Islam now be the superior religion? If so, why did YHWH change His mind and assert a new preference? The point is exceedingly crude and ignorant. To blame the divine for the sins of man is an act of hubris. It’s peoples own faults for blinding themselves to the light of the divine and bringing about the destruction of ancient traditions. After all, it’s difficult to worship a God if terrorists are coming to persecute you by confiscating whatever you own, imprison and torture you, or sometimes even kill you, even in a contemporary society.

Truly, no one needs a license to worship the Gods they choose, or that have chosen them. If they do require such a license, what could possibly constitute it? What makes it “legitimate” for somebody to worship Yeshua or YHWH as opposed to Isis or Athene? The cultures that many contemporary Pagans seek to emulate may have died at one point, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any value in their philosophical worldview or understandings, nor does it mean that they don’t derive some meaningful relationship to the world because of it. At the barest, to deny the existence of other people’s Gods weakens the case of your own. If you suddenly decide to call another person’s religious experience fake, especially if from or derived from a set of long-standing religions with the historical agency of living, individual Gods, then what value are your own? To even assert that these traditions and practices are somehow less valuable than those that survived destruction at the hands of evangelism, proselytization, and persecution is itself a robust display of unconcealed ethnocentric snobbery. The idea that what we have now, the violent Protestant overculture that has stripped the world of its resources and created a system of consumerist hyper-commodification, is somehow “better” or “more acceptable” than the traditions of our ancestors is nothing more than self-indulgent pomposity.

 

Bibliography

Butler, Edward P., Dr. “Polytheism as Methodology in the Study of Religions.” Henadology. October 30, 2016. Accessed January 14, 2018. https://henadology.files.wordpress.com/2016/11/polytheism-as-methodology.pdf

Nixey, Catherine. The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. London: Macmillan, 2017.

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“Hard Polytheism” and “Soft Polytheism”: A Non-Distinction

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There’s an abundantly annoying claim in polytheist circles which accomplishes essentially nothing. The frivolous claim puts forward that there are two types of people who call themselves “polytheists” based on two beliefs regarding the divine:

  • Hard polytheism: The unequivocal belief that there are many distinct, separate and real deities who are independent of humanity; rather than psychological archetypes or personifications of natural forces.
  • Soft polytheism: A multitude of reductive approaches to the divine. It might be a form of archetypalism that associate the divine with human conditions/beliefs, or functionally atheistic pantheism. More often than not, it comes with an inbuilt assumption of agnosticism or even outright atheism, because the term itself was primarily conjured for so-called “humanistic pagans.”

There is a reason why this armchair terminology is useless: It distinguishes nothing.

 

Hard Polytheism

What “hard polytheism” describes is simply just polytheism. It’s the belief that there are numerous discrete, real existing Gods with independent agencies. End of story. This can mean anything from three to a thousand, all the way to a near-infinite amount. What polytheism is isn’t negotiable.

 

Soft Polytheism

Soft polytheism, on the other hand, is essentially something that is not polytheism. The various ideas that “soft polytheism” is usually used to describe already have names; none of which are “polytheism” because what is being described is not polytheistic (a belief in independently existing entities). It doesn’t exist for any other reason but to reduce the Gods down into a neat package, because it’s inherently messy. One either believes in many Gods, or does not. (e.g., if you believe in archetypal symbolic representations, you do not believe in multiple Gods. Jungian Archetypalism is about human psychology and a “collective unconsciousness” that is synonymous with nature, not about the existence of independent entities with agency.)

We can see that the term causes more issues the good it provides. With “soft polytheism,” you have two significant problems:

Firstly, because the term is so vague in itself without a concrete definition, people will often misunderstand what is being said and thus cause miscategorization. The term “soft polytheism” has been used to describe anything from functionally atheistic archetypalism and pantheism, to things that are separate but more than compatible with polytheism such as monism and panentheism, to merely forms of polytheism that incorporate historical elements of syncretism. The term is so muddy that it can put a pious Stoicist or Platonist, with a full belief in independently existing Gods but who hold a panentheistic understanding of the divine, in the same category as an atheistic archetypalist or some vague pantheist. As such, in the words of Hrafnblod, the “soft polytheism” distinction provides a convenient door for secular atheists (e.g., “Humanistic Pagans”) to adopt the facade of a religious tradition without requiring any actual belief nor effort from them, as well as to undermine, subvert and stifle actual development of polytheist theology (and polytheistic practitioners themselves) by presenting a “more rational” alternative, which leads into my second point.

Secondly, it doesn’t exist for any other reason but to produce an “us vs. them” mentality and muddle the landscape of polytheistic theology. The argument of “soft polytheism” intends to convey that actual polytheism is to be characterized as an “extreme” fundamentalist relative to some “moderate” position. As such, it attempts to whitewash polytheistic theology, which is inherently subversive to Monotheist Abrahamic-centric ethos and makes it more tolerable to people who view polytheism as ultimately a dangerous, aberrant form of worship. “Soft polytheism” isn’t merely incompatible with polytheism; it is also hostile and damaging to it.

 

Conclusion

Ultimately, the major problem with the two terms is that it’s an either/or dichotomy, and polytheism absolutely isn’t an either/or theological quality. Polytheism is just “hard polytheism,” and there is a clearly defined line between what polytheism is (worship of many Gods) and what it is not.

 

(Special thanks to TheLettuceMan and Hrafnblod)

 

Bibliography

Hrafnblod, Reddit post “Against the dismissal of archetypes”, Nov 18, 2017 (2:22:59 a.m. UTC), accessed November 26, 2017, https://www.reddit.com/r/pagan/comments/7dnh84/against_the_dismissal_of_archetypes/dpzksxu/

TheLettuceMan. “Baggage and Reactionary Definitions.” Of Axe and Plough. August 16, 2016. Accessed November 26, 2017. https://thelettuceman.wordpress.com/2016/08/16/baggage-and-reactionary-definitions/

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Against the Monotheists “Occam’s Razor”

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Often, monotheists will end up invoking Occam’s Razor, a theory at its most basic principle summed up as “the simplest theory is most likely to be correct,” as a defense for their belief (or lack thereof) and as an attack against polytheism. Here I shall dissect their use of Occam’s Razor to show that monotheism is not “simpler” or “more likely” than polytheism in any way, but rather the opposite.

 

Through reason

Firstly, Occam’s Razor at its most basic principle is “All things being equal; the simplest theory is better”… But all things are not equal. With polytheism, there is more power in the theory, as it has more explanatory and predictive power.

  • Polytheism is more functional as a different deity means a different approach to life, and thus you may not have a guarantee of favor with all of the Gods based on your relation with them. You may be brilliant in economic ventures due to having a secure relation with Hermes, but you might find yourself poor at martial skills due to not having as strong of a relation with Ares.
  • Despite being faced with diverse human religious experience globally that would indicate multiple deities, monotheism ignores this and enforces a belief in only one God, which invalidates the religious experience of others by denying theirs. This makes monotheism require special bargaining because of its atheism which requires one to accept evidence that supports their conclusion but reject any that doesn’t. As such, monotheism has no weight because it claims other Gods do not exist or are merely demons due to its atheistic tendencies which creates a negative inference. A polytheist, however, can use the theory of pragmatic truth and see all religious experience as true, since proper polytheists believe all divinity and thus accept all religious experience. Polytheism thus best accounts for religious experience by abductive reasoning, as the polytheist explanation is less ad hoc and has more explanatory and predictability power.
    • Accepting the existence of all divinities also gives a better explanation of the great diversity in the world. If creation were only shaped by one deity, then all created things would be identical, and no great diversity would exist in the world. Rather, there is a great plurality and diversity between humans, animals, cultures, languages, and morality globally, which proves that different Gods shaped different beings.
    • The case for a plurality of worship is further seen with Platonism, a polytheistic philosophy, as endorsed by the philosopher Iamblichus. Iamblichus states that the Gods are monoeides, meaning “in the form of singularity,” a term that Plato uses for the Good. This means that the Gods have a singular divine essence first, before they are individuals, as unity preceeds multiplicity. This makes the Gods more unitary and emanatory as manifestations of their divine source, functioning as horizontal extensions of the same power which ultimately leads back to that unity. This singular divine essence gives support to the plurality of worship, as it means there are many ways to approach and worship the divine.

 

Through definition

The claim that one God is simpler is, in itself, inaccurate. It can be easily countered.

  • A single God by definition is not more likely, as a single God would still be unavoidably complex and beyond the realm of the mind, and thus as likely as a more numerous amount of Gods. Due to this, a single God would thus be on the same footing as a numerous amount of Gods, since a single God is already unavoidably complex in nature. Gods are not simple; a deity’s existence isn’t tied to the human mind’s ability to wrap itself around that existence.
    • One may try to counter this by claiming that there is only one God who “absorbs all” or that all the Gods “are an aspect of one,” however this is still polytheism in itself since you are imposing dualism by splitting divinity. When you split divinity, you merely make “God” a class term, which polytheists have always understood. As such, doctrines such as this (e.g., pantheism or “immanent monotheism”) just become a form of polytheism.

 

Bibliography

Butler, Edward P., Dr. Essays on a Polytheistic Philosophy of Religion. New York: Phaidra Editions, 2014.

Butler, Edward P., Dr. “ Monotheism is Atheism, and some thoughts on Vedanta · EPButler.” Storify. Accessed May 19, 2017. https://storify.com/EPButler/monotheism-is-atheism-and-some-thoughts-on-vedanta

Dillon, Steven. The Case for Polytheism. Place of publication not identified: Iff Books, 2015.

Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus, and Wilmer Cave. Wright. The works of emperor Julian. London: Heinemann etc., 1962.

Greer, John Michael. A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry Into Polytheism. Tucson, AZ: ADF Pub., 2005.

Iamblichus. De Mysteriis. Translated by Emma C. Clarke, John M. Dillon and Jackson P. Hershbell. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.

Kupperman, Jeffrey S. Living theurgy: a course in Iamblichus philosophy, theology and theurgy. London: Avalonia, 2014.

Many gods, One logic. Directed by Epified. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KWM7P1K1mU.

Plato, and Benjamin Jowett. The Complete Works of Plato. United States: Akasha Pub., 2008.

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